On Wednesday evening in downtown Los Angeles at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theater, ABC and ESPN put on the 23rd annual ESPY Award Show. Actor and comedian Joel McHale hosted the award show, and spared no one in the audience, with jokes about Donald Trump deporting Triple Crown jockey Victor Espoinoza to Mexico, Super Bowl runner-up Russell Wilson choosing to throw and not run the ball on the goal line against the Patriots, and the lack of action in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. While McHale, like most previous ESPY hosts, set a tone of lightheartedness through comedy, the show simultaneously highlighted some stories that transcend sports to bigger issues.
One of these heavier stories was that of Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still and his cancer-fighting daughter, Leah. The two were honored for the Jimmy V Perseverance Award because of how they served as a beacon of hope for other families facing similar battles. In June 2014, Leah was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer that left her with a 50-50 chance of survival. Devon was unable to concentrate on football that summer and so the Bengals placed him on the practice squad, which meant Leah would still be covered by the team’s health insurance policy. Devon delivered a moving speech stating, “I always used to dream about how I was going to be able to show [Leah] so much about life, but in the five years I’ve been with [her], she has taught me more about life than I could ever do.”
Another moving story was that of Lauren Hill who was honored for the Best Moment. Hill was a Division III women’s basketball player at Mount St. Joseph’s who inspired people with her fight against brain cancer. Her dream was to just play in one college basketball game. The NCAA agreed to move Mt. St. Joseph’s opening game against Hiram College up by two weeks because her condition was deteriorating. Xavier University offered it’s 10,000 arena so more people could attend the game, and sure enough tickets sold out in less than an hour. Hill inspired people with her fight against brain cancer and helped raise over $1.5 million in cancer research before she lost her battle to the disease on April 10th. Her parents, Brent and Lisa Hill, accepted the award on her behalf.
As is tradition with the ESPY’s, the big moment of the award ceremony was the presentation of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The Arthur Ashe Award was awarded to Caitlyn Jenner – the transgendered woman formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner delivered a very emotional speech where she thanked her family for unconditional support and urged acceptance for others who are transgendered. As you might imagine the award presentation was met with mixed responses and some controversy, but she received a standing ovation from the star studded audience after the 10-minute speech.
From the stage, Caitlyn Jenner thanked Diane Sawyer, who interviewed her in an interview on ABC in April and helped break the news to the world that she was becoming a woman. Noting her powerful celebrity platform, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and current reality TV star vowed “to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated.” Bruce Jenner was the epitome of masculinity as the 1976 Decathlon Olympic Champion with big muscles and supreme athleticism, and so this announcement was all the more surprising. Coming on the heels of the gay marriage rights announcement, Caitlyn Jenner’s story and this award seemingly gained extra attention especially among social right activists.
The award was marked with controversy when RadarOnline.com reported Wednesday that Jenner’s representatives approached ESPN suggesting the network give her the Ashe award in exchange for plugs on her upcoming E! documentary series “I am Cait.” Allegedly, Jenner’s representatives approached ESPN, prior to the ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, forming an agreement to do the interview on ABC in exchange for the Arthur Ashe Award. Disney owns both ABC and ESPN.
Whether or not these reports are accurate, some have expressed disagreement with using the ESPY’s as a platform for such issues like gender identity and transgendered equality. And while these topics are controversial in nature, it seems by the rating numbers and the audience reaction, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage was extremely well received. The three hour show averaged a 2.2 rating/8 share in adults 18-49 and 7.7 million viewers overall on the ABC stations from 8 to 11pm. These numbers more than tripled last year’s telecast on ESPN which did a demo rating of 1.1 and only about 2.2 million viewers.
Other highlights of the show included the US Women’s Soccer team taking home the Best Team of the Year, Rob Gronkowski winning Best Comeback Athlete, Odell Beckham Jr’s one-handed catch taking Best Play, Steph Curry capturing Best Male Athlete and the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX winning the Best Game Award.
The ESPY’s once again proved to the world the unifying effect sports have on society and how sports can effectively be used as a vehicle to bring attention to widespread global issues.